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8 Finding a Topic and Beginning Research

Dianne Prost O'Leary
Last modified October 12, 2016.

There are some aspects of graduate school that are more daunting than others, and finding a research topic is perhaps the biggest obstacle for most students. The characteristics of an ideal topic are to some extent incompatible:

Clearly some compromise is necessary here!

8.1 Getting Research Ideas

8.1.1 Becoming an Active Reader and Listener

It is very important to make the transition from the passive mode of learning that traditional lecture courses encourage to an active and critical learning style. Whenever you read technical material, evaluate a piece of software, or listen to a research talk, ask yourself these canonical questions:

One technique that some find helpful is to keep a written log of technical reading and listening. Review it periodically to see if some of the ideas begin to fit together.

8.1.2 Exposing Yourself to Research

Set aside some time every week for trying to generate research ideas. Some possible catalysts are:

Add these to your log, and ask the canonical questions. As you review the log 6 months from now, you may find something that has become important to you but was beyond you when you first encountered it.

8.1.3 Directed Study

Which comes first: the thesis advisor or the thesis topic? The answer is, both ways work. If you have identified a compatible advisor, you could ask for an independent study course. Both of you together set the focus for the course, with you having more or less input depending upon your progress in identifying a subfield of research.

8.1.4 Developing the Germ of an Idea

Once you have identified a topic that looks feasible, make sure you are aware of all of the literature in the area. Keep reading and listening, and keep distinct in your mind what is different between your work and others. If you do not frequently review the literature you read months ago, you may find yourself unconsciously claiming credit for other people's ideas. On the other hand, don't let other people's frame of mind limit your creativity.

8.2 A Pitfall to Avoid

It is possible to spend almost all of your time in literature review and seminars. It is easy to convince yourself that by doing this you are working hard and accomplishing something. The truth of the matter is that nothing will come of it unless you are an active reader and listener and unless you assign yourself time to develop your own ideas, too. It is impossible to ``finish a literature review and then start research." New literature is always appearing, and as your depth and breadth increases, you will continually see new connections and related areas that must be studied. Active listening and reading must be viewed as ``continuing education'' that will involve you for the rest of your career. Don't fool yourself into thinking it must be finished before you can begin research.

8.3 Choosing an Idea

From reading, interacting with your advisor during independent study, or working on a research assistantship, some possible projects will emerge. Make a list of open problems and possible projects that are of interest to you, and discuss them with potential advisors.

8.4 Remain Active

Even after you have decided on your initial focus, it is important to continue a routine of reading new material and attending seminars. All of these sources can contribute to the development of your idea.

At this stage you can add one question to the canonical list: How can these ideas help me solve my research problem?

Remember that often the initial idea is quite far from the final thesis topic. If you remain active in reading and listening, it will be much easier to generate alternative topics if the time comes.

next up previous contents
Next: 9 The Thesis Writing Up: gradstudy Previous: 7 Finding and Dealing   Contents
Dianne O'Leary 2016-10-12